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Carnaval & Rio de Janeiro, BR


February 22, 2020

Rio and Carnival – we’ve all heard about it, read about it and seen it on television; it’s one of those “bucket list” experiences many of us have.

Well, we are finally here in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil!  We have tickets to see one night of parades and hope to experience some of the magic we’ve heard about, read about and seen pictures of.  We have booked an apartment through AirBNB in the suburb of Ipanema and have parked Tigger for the week.

Rio de Janeiro (which means River of January), or simply Rio, is the second largest city in Brazil and the sixth most populous in the Americas. Part of the city was designated as a World Heritage Site named “Rio de Janeiro: Carioca – Landscapes between the Mountain and the Sea”, on 1 July 2012 as a Cultural Landscape.

Founded in 1565 by the Portuguese, the city was initially the seat of the domain of the  Portuguese Empire. Later, in 1763, it became the capital of the State of Brazil.  In 1808, when the Portuguese Royal Court transferred itself from Portugal to Brazil, Rio de Janeiro became the chosen seat of the court of Queen Maria I.  In 1815, under the leadership of her son, the Prince Regent, and future King João VI, raised Brazil to the dignity of a kingdom, within the United Kingdom of Portugal  Rio stayed the capital of the pluricontinental Lusitanian monarchy until 1822, when the War of Brazilian Independence began. (This is one of the few instances in history that the capital of a colonizing country officially shifted to a city in one of its colonies.) Rio de Janeiro subsequently served as the capital of the independent monarchy, known as the Empire of Brazil until 1889, and then the capital of a republican Brazil until 1960 when the capital was transferred to Brasilia.

Rio de Janeiro is one of the most visited cities in the southern hemisphere and is known for its natural settings, Carnival, samba, bossa nova and beaches. In addition to the beaches, some of the most famous landmarks include the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer, Sugar-loaf Mountain, the Sambadrome,  and the Maracana Stadium, one of the world’s largest soccer stadiums.  Rio de Janeiro was the host of the 2016 Olympics and the 2014 FIFA world cup.

Carnaval (yes that is the way it’s spelled here), like Mardi Gras, finds its roots in pagan spring festivals.  In the Middle Ages, this was celebrated in the form of wild parties by both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation peoples.  But even the heavy hand of the Inquisition could not squash Carnaval in this Portuguese colony.  Here it acquired indigenous costumes and African rhythms. 

The world “carnaval” is believed to come from the Latin “carne vale” which means “goodbye meat” due to the 40 days of abstinence that Lent entails (among other pleasures).  It’s like sins are being racked up in advance. 

Carnaval is held over the five days prior to Ash Wednesday (Friday to Tuesday).  It’s considered the world’s largest party and in Brazil it takes many forms in many towns, villages and cities.  Festivities often begin weeks before and in some states at a different time of year.  In different regions of the country, it takes different forms; Rio is about the samba; in other cities they celebrate with other forms of music and dance.  They all have these things in common: drinking, dancing and a “joie de vivre”.  Rio and São Paulo both host massive all night parades complete with out of this world floats, drummers and costumes; while Salvador celebrates in the streets complete with bands moving constantly.  In Olinda, the historic centre becomes a stage with giant puppets and wild bands. 

In Rio, where the largest of them all is held, it all comes down to samba competitions in parades held in the “Sambadromo” – a very unique venue several blocks long actually measuring about 700 m (about a half mile).  Outside this paid venue, there are parties in many neighbourhoods called “blocos”.  These became even more popular after the turn of the 21st century where they grew from just a few scattered around the city, to over 400 of them, filling neighbourhoods with the sound of pounding drums and songs.  For the locals, nick named Cariocas, this is the highlight of the festival.  The largest one has recorded crowds of 1.5 MILLION people!

Upwards of 30,000 people buy tickets to see the parades at the Sambadromo –  this venue where the top samba schools compete for top honours; each school has 3-500 members, 2-400 drummers, ginormous floats, celebrities, lavish costumes including 1.5 metre high headdresses. 

We have tickets for Monday night’s samba parade semi finals and splurged in this regard to get covered seats (as it rains a fair bit this time of year) and we didn’t want to be in the grandstands.  We also purchased transportation to the venue as taxis will be scarce and so many streets are closed to traffic at this time.  We’ll report later on in this blog on our experience.

We had only 136 km / 84 mi to get to Rio on this Saturday.  We began to see traffic headed the other direction almost immediately but then it thinned out considerably.  As we were crossing the north part of the city we really hit traffic heading our way – people getting out of Rio for the hectic time of Carnaval.  It was extremely slow going and we we’re even entering Rio proper!  Our speed was as shown below most of the time:

We had a place in mind with two or three possible backups to park Tigger (Pedro – our AirBNB host- had been unable to find us something as hard as he tried.)  We lucked out at the first place (as well as the least expensive) and it worked out just fine.  This lot in Niteroi – across the bay from Rio proper was a parking lot used for motorhomes during the Olympics.  It is open from Monday to Saturday and has a small police station in the corner.  For R10 a day (about $2.50 USD) we got Tigger parked in a nice corner spot.  The parking attendant was very kind and Doug went over and introduced himself to the cops as well.

We reached out to our AirBNB host to advise him we’d found a spot and asked if his place was available tonight – we are booked from tomorrow.  He said it would be free his afternoon and we negotiated a cash price with him and were told to come after 3 pm.

So we had a few hours to kill.  We took a walk over to see the famous Museum of Modern Art Building we’d read about and to look for a bank.

We came across our first “bloco” here:

It took a few tries to find an ATM that worked for us and we stopped for brunch before returning to Tigger to finish packing up, close up and walked over to catch the ferry across the bay.  The ferry cost about $1.50 USD and took about 25 minutes.  From the other side we called a Cabify to the apartment in Ipanema.  This took about 40 minutes and we went through two tunnels to get there.  Pedro was unable to meet us but had left the keys with the doorman.

We have a small one bedroom apartment with AC, Wifi (not great) and a kitchen.  It’s on the second floor and is pretty modern.

After unpacking we went for a walk to check out the beach which is only a block away and the overcast skies tried to clear but never quite did.

The beach has crashing waves and there were red flags up all along as far as we could see.

We returned to meet Pedro pay him for the additional night and get some info before going out again to see about joining in a bloco.   We were not impressed that much as it seemed to be just a lot of people getting drunk – we’re too old for that nonsense.

One of our stops was the café where the song “The Girl from Ipanema” was written:

Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes, each one she passes
Goes “a-a-a-h”
When she walks she’s like a samba
When she walks, she’s like a samba
That swings so cool and sways so gentle
That when she passes, each one she passes
Goes “a-a-a-h”
Oh, but I watch her so sadly
How can I tell her I love her
Yes, I would give my heart gladly
But each day as she walks to the sea
She looks…

(bet that’s stuck in your head now!)

We picked up some food and drink and returned to the apartment for the night.  Pedro had told us that blocos are held only during the day so we weren’t missing anything by staying in for the night.

Sunday morning our plan was to head over to pick up out tickets for the Sambadromo parade for Monday night.  The ticket office was in Copacabana so we walked along the beachfront most of the way. Again the waves here are huge and it does not appear to be a swimming beach at least right now.  The weather was decent, not completely clear but the sun came out alot – it was not too hot – maybe  mid twenties C / mid to upper 70’s F.

We waited in the line about 25 minutes, chatting with an American couple from Pennsylvania and upon getting to the front of the line, discovered we’d been “upgraded” from Section 7 to Section 9 – right by the judges!  We had purchased transport right to the venue so we got those tickets as well.  So instead of being in a covered box, we are in a “frisa” which is the area right on the ground level – with four levels of six seat “boxes”.  We will be seated in the third level so slightly elevated from the ground.

We returned to the apartment as we did not want to carry out tickets around all day and got in touch with overlanders, Pat & Neil, from the UK, to see about meeting up today but they couldn’t so we hope to do that on Tuesday. Pat and Neil are currently located in Colombia but flew into Brazil for Carnival.  We’ve conversed with them but have never actually met.

We made our way out again returning to Copacabana – it was surreal to think where we were:  the beach front in freaking Rio strolling along the Copacabana beach!  It was pretty warm out but mostly overcast and somewhat humid but not totally unbearable.  There were a few sand structures made by locals that you could get your picture take with for a donation so we did this one:

We saw a few loud blocos taking place along the malecon,

And a car wash type refreshing station:

picked up a few things from vendors (of which there are hundreds!) to wear to the Sambadromo, had some Açai, a few beers on the beach watching the massive waves crashing – this is definitely not a swimming beach at this time nor is Ipanema!

We then had a late lunch at a bar on the beach before returning to the apartment.

Monday morning, we awoke to clear skies and sunshine that was not supposed to last so we were up and out of the apartment by 7:30 to catch a Cabify up to the cable car to see the views at Pão de Açucar.

Sugarloaf Mountain (in Portugese: Pão de Açúcar) is a peak situated in Rio at the mouth of Guanabara Bay on a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean.  It rises 396 m (1,299 ft) above the harbor, its name is said to refer to its resemblance to the traditional shape of concentrated refined loaf sugar. It is known worldwide for its cable car ride with panoramic views of the city and beyond.

The mountain is one of several monolithic granite and quartz mountains that rise straight from the water’s edge around the city. The mountain is a national monument and became a UNESCO site in 2012.  The first cable car was in 1912

and then in 1972 the cars were replaced with ones like this

which were used until 2006. 

 We arrived just before it opened, splurged on “fast pass tickets” and were given “preferential” treatment – free bottles of water and the ability to line jump.  First you take a cable car to the top of Morro Urca (Urca Hill)

and then a second one to the top of the Sugar Loaf Mountain.

We picked right time to come for sure – the views were fantastic.

After wandering the top viewpoints we returned to Morro Urca to wander that a bit before going all the way back down.

From the tops we saw the famous Guaranbara Bay Bridge which we crossed to get to Niteroi.  The bay here in Rio was first thought to be the mouth of a river by the Portuguese and the concept of a bridge began in 1875.  This bridge joins the cities of Rio and Niteroi.  It is currently the longest  prestressed concrete bridge in the southern hemisphere and the sixth-longest in the world. From its completion in 1974 until 1985 it was the world’s second-longest bridge (currently is fourteenth on the list of longest bridges in the world).   It is 13.29 km / 8.26 m long.

The bay itself derives its name as follows:

We then caught another cab to take us downtown to do a self guided walking tour  of downtown that our guide book recommended.  We started at Praça Floriana where the municipal theatre is located – built in a Parisian style d and it was quite something.

From there the tour went downhill and the worst part was the almost constant stench of urine! (The City of Rio puts up lots of porta potties during carnaval but it seems not everyone uses them AND there are a lot of homeless people in this central part of the city.)

Aside from the landscapes of Rio viewed from above, we don’t find it ab attractive  city – there’s a lot of graffiti as well

In São Paulo we saw a lot of murals, of which there are a few okay ones here, but more than murals are the just ugly graffiti on many buildings and structures.

Oh we also stopped to see if the Venezuela consulate was open but as expected, during Carnaval, it was closed.

A former aqueduct which is now a tram bridge through Santa Teresa:

We did see some interesting buildings but some of the stops along the tour were closed due to the holiday (today is Shrove Monday and tomorrow is Fat Tuesday with Wednesday being Ash Wednesday).

and some nice residential buildings:

By the 18th of 20 stops, we’d had enough and decided to go back just as it started to sprinkle.  We ordered a cab but after twenty minutes of watching the guy make wrong turns to get here on the app, we cancelled it and walked a little in the direction “home” before calling another one.  We were back before two and Doug went to have a nap as he’d not slept well and tonight is our big night at the Sambadromo – Fran had had the best sleep she’d had in a week so she skipped the napping.

By 5:30 pm we were dressed and ready to go catch our bus to the event we’d been waiting for.

We were at our pick up point before the allotted 6:06 pm time but we weren’t sure exactly where to be.  We checked with the hotel staff and finally someone knew what we were talking about he said the bus usually comes around 6:20; by 6:35 we were getting concerned and then the combi showed up, picked up one other couple and we were at the Sambadromo just after 7 pm for the 9 pm show which in true Latin American form began around 9:40.

As mentioned above, we got upgraded from sector 7 to sector 9 in the “frisas” zone – which is the coveted zone for tourists.  You are down at nearly ground level and have plenty of room to move around and dance.  Each “frisa” has only six seats and the sector is right by the judges so the parade is at its best.  We were seated with an American/Costa Rican couple from New York and a young couple from Bulgaria.

Tonight there were six samba schools competing in 70 minute time slots.  Each begins with fireworks just outside the venue by sector 1 and it takes about 15 – 20 minutes to reach us!  There is a clock that runs showing you the time as it elapses.

Each group has their own theme, song and music that repeats over and over.  We have no idea how they can sing the same lyrics over and over for 70 minutes!  (it’s like “the song that never ends”!).

The floats are elaborate, the costumes are amazing and it’s wonder no one faints wearing some of them.

Check out the gallery for still pics:  Rio Gallery   Be patient – it can be slow to load!

We managed to enjoy all SIX schools and the show was over at 4:30 AM – we made it, thanks to lots of Coke zero, water and a few bottles of water – oh and lots and lots of spot lights.  The other two couples were gone long before us; one after two school and the other after the fourth.  Not that we didn’t drink but we limited our consumption so as not to get sleepy – and they were pricey.  To get drinks you lined up in one line for tickets and another for the actual drinks so it was time consuming as well.

Tuesday morning we were up before 9 and after a leisurely morning, took the subway to the suburb of Barra de Tijuca where a single overlanding lady, named Roberta lives and she was hosting British overlanders, Pat & Neil, whom we know only on Facebook.  Roberta picked us up at the subway and we went back to her place for a chat before all piling into her car for a short beach drive and lunch at a nice Italian place.

After lunch Roberta dropped us off at the nearest subway and we returned to our apartment before dark.  We’d had such a big lunch we just snacked for dinner.

Wednesday we had a city tour booked called “The Big Dude  Tour” – the “big dude” being the Christ the Redeemer statue.

We met the guide and the rest of the group about two blocks down the street from our apartment outside a hostel and after a bit of a kerfuffle due to over booking, we were on our way.  Our guide Felipe, speaks Portuguese, English and Spanish (and loves languages so is in the process of learning others including Korean!).  Our group consisted five Canadians (three young men also from Vancouver), 4 Americans, 2 Germans, 1 Brit and 2 Aussies.  Our first stop was the highlight: the Big Dude.  We were taken up in a mini van and after purchasing the tickets, Felipe took us to a official park mini van where we were taken up to the top at Corcovado.  Here you can take an elevator and escalator to the top or a set of stairs – we took the stairs up and the elevator back down.

It was pretty crowded but could have been worse (if our tour had left on time, we would have arrived earlier).  The weather was not perfect but it was dry and beginning to brighten.

The Christ the Redeemer statue was built in 1931.  It is 30 m 98.5’ tall, sits on a 8 m / 26’ tall base at an altitude of 709 m / 2326’.  It was built to face the bay welcoming people into the harbour.  The face was designed in France and a plaster mold was made and brought here.  It is made of soapstone. 

After returning the van, we were taken to the bohemian neighbourhood of Santa Theresa to have a quick look see including the cable car

This is the only place in the city where there is a tram.

Next was a stop at the Steps of Selarón.

Escadaria Selarón, also known as the ‘Selarón Steps’, is a set of world-famous steps  are the work of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón who claimed it as “my tribute to the Brazilian people”. 

In 1990, Selarón began renovating dilapidated steps that ran along the front of his house. At first, neighbours mocked him for his choice of colours as he covered the steps in fragments of blue, green and yellow tiles – the colours of the Brazilian flag. It started out as a side-project to his main passion, painting, but soon became an obsession. He found he was constantly out of money, so Selarón sold paintings to fund his work. It was long and exhausting work but he continued on and eventually covered the entire set of steps in tiles, ceramics and mirrors.

Originally, tiles for the work were scavenged from various construction sites and piles of urban waste found on the Rio streets. But in later years most of the tiles were donated by visitors from all around the world. Of the 2000+ tiles, 300-odd are hand painted by Selarón depicting a pregnant African woman. Selarón didn’t comment on this except to say that it was a “Personal problem from my past”.

There are 215 steps measuring 125 metres long which are covered in over 2000 tiles collected from over 60 countries around the world. No sooner had one section of the steps ‘finished’, Selarón started work on another section, constantly changing it so that it was an ever evolving piece of art. Selarón considered the work as “never complete” and claimed that “This crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death”.

It has been featured in numerous music videos such as Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful” and U2 as filmed at this location.  In 2009 the steps were featured in Rio’s 2016 Olympic bid video “The Passion Unites Us”. The steps were also featured in the show The Amazing Race (Season 18) where teams were tasked to find a tile resembling a route info sign

We were then driven back to Ipanema for lunch; we went to one of those “quilo” restaurants where it’s a buffet and you pay by the kilo for what you eat.  The best part was the choices of chocolate desserts there – yummy!

After lunch we drove west to Sao Conrado to see the beach

and the contrast between the rich neighbourhoods on the water side of the highway and the favelas on the land side of the highway.  Favelas are the homes that are built by squatters and are like slums.  The people do not own the land and the government does not make them move but things are getting better in that they now have running water and power, but sewage still remains an issue. As we only drove by these things, it was difficult to take a photo – this was taken through bus window

this one is thanks to Google:

The final stop was in the Tijuca Forest.  This is an urban forest, apparently the largest in the world and it takes up 7% of the city of Rio.  Here we did a short 3 minute hike to a pretty waterfall.

Felipe showed us some jack fruit:

and the Brazil Wood tree.

The Paubrasilia is a Brazilian timber tree commonly known as Pernambuco wood or brazilwood and is the national tree.  This plant has a dense, orange-red heartwood that takes a high shine, and it is the premier wood used for making bows for stringed instruments. The wood also yields a red dye called brazilian which the Portuguese explorers brought back to Europe.  This tree is where the name of the country came from.

The brazilwood tree may reach up to 15 metres (49 ft) in height, and the dark brown bark flakes in large patches, revealing the lustrous blood-red heartwood underneath. The leaves are pinnate and each consists of between 9 and 19 small, leathery leaflets, which are broadly oblong in shape. The flower stalk, or inflorescence, is also branched and contains between 15 and 40 yellow, strongly perfumed flowers, which may be pollinated by bees. The petals are usually yellow with a blood-red blotch. The fruits are oval-shaped woody seedpods which hang off the branches and after the seeds are expelled, the pods become twisted. The branches, leaves and fruit are covered with small thorns.

We were taken back to our pickup point and returned to our apartment after running a few errands.

Sidebar:  Felipe told us that usually during Carnaval here in Rio, the temperatures are around 40C / 104F so we have been quite fortunate to not even have a day as warm as 30C / 86F.  

Our last full day here, Thursday, we awoke to the forecasted rain (although it was supposed to start yesterday before dark….).  We had a chill day including a walk along Ipanema Beach in the opposite direction for a bit, then we walked along the streets back to Copacabana Beach.  Both beaches were very calm today; both in regard to the number of people (no one in costume at all) and the waves themselves; today you could get in the water for sure.   Vendors along the sidewalks were few and there were cars in the streets that for the past few days had been shut down to pedestrian traffic.  A totally different vibe.

Then it began to rain again so we picked up some stuff to eat for lunch and dinner and spent the rest  of the day indoors.

Friday morning it was overcast once again, we were up on the early side and checked out of the AirBNB by 7:30; caught a Cabify to Tigger who was safe and sound and made our way out of Rio. The only issue appears to be lack of sunshine here in Niteroi as the solar panels were down to 69% and all that was running of the batteries was the fridge which we’d turned down.  Not so good and the forecast is for clouds and rain for the next ten days.

Enroute we wanted to check out an AutoGlass place that Roberta found for us to see about repairing our passenger side mirror, but it was not open and from what we gathered from the security guard, they are more a supplier than a retail/service business.  So on we went to Petropolis which is still in the State of Rio de Janeiro.

Until next time, …….